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Data-Crunching Is Coming to Help Your Boss Manage Your Time

You might be at work, but that hardly means you are working.

Mitesh Bohra thought that projects at his software company, InfoBeans, were taking too long. "Something was supposed to be done in a thousand hours and it would end up taking 1,500," he said. "We were racking our brains to figure out where the time went."

Increasingly, bosses have an answer. A new generation of workplace technology is allowing white-collar jobs to be tracked, tweaked and managed in ways that were difficult even a few years ago. Employers of all types — old-line manufacturers, nonprofits, universities, digital start-ups and retailers — are using an increasingly wide range of tools to monitor workers' efforts, help them focus, cheer them on and just make sure they show up on time.

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The programs foster connections and sometimes increase productivity among employees who are geographically dispersed and often working from home. But as work force management becomes a factor in offices everywhere, questions are piling up. How much can bosses ratchet up intensity? How does data, which bestows new powers of vision and understanding, redefine who is valuable? And with half of salaried workers saying they work 50 or more hours a week, when does working very hard become working way too much?

Time clock
Robbert van der Steeg | Getty Images

"The massive forces of globalization and technological progress are removing the need for a lot of the previous kind of white-collar workers," said Andrew McAfee, associate director of the Center for Digital Business at the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management. "There's a lot of competition, global labor pools of pretty good quality, automation to make you more productive and make your job more 24/7. These are not calming forces."

Indeed, one way employees are pushed to work harder is tethering them to the office outside of normal business hours. Nearly a third of workers in a Gallup poll last year said they were expected to "check email and stay in touch" when they were not working.

"People in sales are continually measured and always know where they stand. Now this is happening in the rest of the white-collar work force," said Paul Hamerman, a workplace technology analyst with Forrester Research. "Done properly, it will increase engagement. Done in the wrong way, employees will feel pressured or micromanaged."

Myrna Arias, a Southern California saleswoman for Intermex, a money-transfer company based in Miami, was required to download an app on her cellphone that tracked her whereabouts 24 hours a day, she claims in a lawsuit now pending in federal court. Ms. Arias' suit quotes her manager as saying, perhaps jokingly, that he knew how fast she was driving at all times.

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"Ms. Arias believed it was akin to wearing a felon's ankle bracelet," said her lawyer, Gail A. Glick. She deleted the app and was fired. Her suit, which accuses Intermex of invasion of privacy and wrongful termination, seeks $500,000 in lost wages. Neither Intermex nor its lawyers responded to requests for comment.

Companies making work force technology that relies more on engagement than enforcement say it increases transparency and fairness.

"In the office of the future," said Kris Duggan, chief executive of BetterWorks, a Silicon Valley start-up founded in 2013, "you will always know what you are doing and how fast you are doing it. I couldn't imagine living in a world where I'm supposed to guess what's important, a world filled with meetings, messages, conference rooms, and at the end of the day I don't know if I delivered anything meaningful."

BetterWorks is focused less on measuring how employees spend their time at the office than in making them more connected to it. One way to do that: Make it feel more like Facebook.

One of its clients, Capco, a financial services consultant, is seeking to make the millennials happy. "They are looking for gigs, not careers," said Patrick Gormley, the chief operating officer. "The things that would keep them tied to a job in years gone past — a mortgage, a car loan — have evaporated. That really challenges us to create an outstanding employee experience, so we can retain the best."

Capco's 3,000 employees, who are spread out geographically, post their most ambitious goals for the year electronically for all colleagues to see and they, as well as executives, can issue "nudges" and "cheers" to each other.

"Transparency is a tough culture change, particularly for management," Mr. Gormley said. "We're not used to admitting that we're not perfect." He noted that 12 people had nudged him electronically, versus 52 cheers.

Other work force developers are enhancing the traditional process of evaluating employees, which used to be annual and backward looking. Now it is more spontaneous.

Amazon, the e-commerce giant, uses an internal tool called Anytime Feedback, which allows employees to submit praise or criticism to management. The company says most of the remarks are positive, though some Amazon employees complain that the process can be hidden and harsh.

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Workday, which is based in the Bay Area, has developed a tool called Collaborative Anytime Feedback. Colleagues use it to salute each other — everyone in the company can see who is saying what.

"People wouldn't put something negative in a public forum, because it would reflect poorly on them," said Amy Wilson, Workday vice president of human capital management products.

The software also enables employees to comment privately, however, to a colleague's manager. Workday says these remarks range from positive to at least constructive.

Workday also sells an employee time-tracking program, which it advertises as being able to increase worker productivity, along with reducing labor costs — presumably in human relations departments — and minimizing compliance risks.

Brown University is one of Workday's customers, offering an endorsement on the company's site. A university spokesman declined to comment on how the program was used at the Rhode Island campus.

Some say time tracking simply replaces a manual time sheet and encourages honesty.

"We tell people not to focus on the Big Brother aspect. This is all about efficiency," said Joel Slatis, founder of Timesheets.com, which makes clock-in software used by 1,400 small companies. "If you fill out a paper timecard and write down 8 a.m. when you come in at 8:02, no one is going to bat an eye. But if you do that when you leave too, that means you're getting 5 minutes more a day. After a year, that's a few days more vacation."

Jamie Clausen, who clocks in and out of her job in customer service at a State Farm insurance office in Silicon Valley from her home using Timesheets, says she accepts it as a modern reality.

"It shouldn't be an option to just show up at 9:15," she said. Ms. Clausen, 29, previously worked in a call center, where she was closely monitored. She added that she had been watching "Mad Men," and its portrayal of freewheeling 1960s office life "seemed crazy." "It was a totally different world, back then."

At InfoBeans, an Indian company whose United States headquarters is in the Bay Area, managers feared that workers' inefficiency would lead to financial losses and client defections. So it began to use a software system called Buddy, which is made by Sapience, an Indian firm that is expanding into the American market.

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Khiv Singh, a Sapience vice president, noted that data surrounds us. "We have pedometers to measure how far we walk, apps to monitor our blood pressure, stress level, the calories we're taking in, the calories we're burning. But the office is where we spend the majority of time, and we don't measure our work."

When InfoBeans first began using Buddy, Mr. Bohra was surprised by what he found.

"Engineers would write on their time sheets that they were doing development for eight hours, but we started to see a very different set of activities that people are performing," Mr. Bohra said. "Meetings. Personal time. Uncategorized time. Performing research on something that maybe already should be a part of our knowledge repository."

Mr. Bohra declined to let any of his employees be interviewed. But he said the work was more focused now, which meant smaller teams taking on bigger workloads. Eliminating distractions, including some meetings, lets people go home earlier, he added.